Education, dialogue important in tackling seafarers’ drinking problem

Not more penalties.

Like in many countries, South Korea prohibits drinking while piloting a ship. Captains and crews who are found drunk can face up to five years in prison or a fine of 30 million won (US$24,000), depending on their blood alcohol concentration and the size of the vessel they were operating.

However, despite the stringent penalties, the authorities still received many reports of drunk captains and sailors every year. According to the data from the Ministry of Public Safety and Security, the number of captains and crew members who were found drunk has increased from 81 in 2011 to 131 in 2015.

A person’s eyesight and the level of concentration will deteriorate when intoxicated. Alcohol also can impair one’s decision-making ability and slow down responses to emergencies.  Nonetheless, in some instances, a ship’s crew would drink alcohol during celebrations or gatherings.

Captain Young-mo Kim, who now serves as Secretary General of the Korea Shipmasters’ Forum (KSMF), said in an interview with Maritime Fairtrade that the case of the Russian cargo ship Seagrand crashing into a bridge in Busan was an example of the danger of navigating while under the influence of alcohol.

On February 28, 2019, the 6,000-ton ship slammed into the lower structure of Gwangan Bridge. The captain was intoxicated and thus miscalculated the distance between the ship and the bridge.  

“Still, captains and crew members who are responsible for the ship that day are not allowed to take even a small amount of alcohol under any circumstances,” Jeon Hee-tae, a former ship captain told Maritime Fairtrade.

Captain Jeon said he never encountered any drinking incidents or other related problems in his career in South Korea.  But it is a problem for the authorities if drinking alcohol happened on ocean-going ships because it is difficult to monitor and enforce the law.  In this case, the authorities can request the captain to report the crew’s blood alcohol levels on a weekly basis.  However, there are loopholes in this method as well.

“However, I personally have not seen any cases of captains or crew members being under the influence of alcohol while operating their vessels,” Captain Jeon said. “If I did, I surely would have reported to the authorities.”

South Korea’s penalties are heavier than those of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), Captain Kim from KSMF said. The STCW limits blood alcohol content to be less than 0.05 percent, while in Korea it is lower than 0.03 percent.

Imposing heavy penalties can be seen as an effort to prioritize the importance of a safe operation. However, to recommend heavier and more penalties than those stated in the current law to root out drinking alcohol can undermine the morale of seafarers, Kim said.

“Stronger regulations and penalties aren’t the only solutions to the drinking problem. It is important to explain the rationale that ultimately the law is there to protect the health and safety of the crew and the ship.  It is also important to cultivate a working culture where it is ok to report offenders.  Therefore, education and dialogue are important.”

Kim also stated that ensuring seafarers’ welfare like giving enough breaks while working onboard a ship and more shore leave to relieve pressure will help as studies have found that higher stress can often lead to a drinking problem.

“Giving enough breaks might not be an easy solution since many ships around the Korean Peninsula are under tight operational schedules, but it is necessary,” he said.

Jeon agreed that training and dialogue are required and they can be undertaken by training centers and companies’ inhouse quality control teams.  He added that disincentives such as demotions or transfer to shore-based jobs can be effective.

Photo credit: iStock/ KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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